Veteran referee Tappe Henning says his appointment as the new head of match officials for the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is one of the most challenging roles of his career.
His job is to help get all the referees, coaches and players on the same page of a United Rugby Championship that is redefining world rugby with its melting pot of different cultures and different playing styles between the teams of the north and the south.
Anybody who has a social media account will tell you that this is no easy task. “The big challenge is to bring consistency and alignment to world rugby refereeing. If I can improve the consistency by 25% across the board, I’ll be very happy and that will be a great step forward,” Henning said.
“The URC has the top players in the world. Those are the players we’re refereeing. This is a full-on international competition, and just as these players will go to the next level into Test rugby, so will our referees. Our job is to make sure that what a player experiences in the refereeing of a URC game on a Friday evening is the same as what a player experiences in the refereeing of a Six Nations Test on the Saturday, or at Rugby World Cup level. We owe that to the players. They can’t have differences in refereeing. They can’t be confused. We need to align.”
Dialogue is key in this process, and Henning has been in constant communication with coaches in both hemispheres to address their concerns and questions.
“The biggest part of my job is putting in place communication channels so there is a central point of feedback for the coaches. Coaches want more consistency in how key areas of the game are being refereed. They want clarity on what the written law is, and then the application on the day. They are concerned that there may be interpretation differences and it catches them off guard. Consistency is hugely important, and it will be my key focus. Referees must be consistent over 80 minutes. We need to pull together all the philosophies at each union and how they develop their referees and style of play, so we have consistency, understanding and respect amongst all of us.”
“It’s about talking to each other with respect – whether its referees and coaches, or fans and television pundits. This is not about pointing fingers, but about what we all believe is best for the game of rugby. Referees are under more scrutiny now than ever before,” he added.
“A competition like the URC is taking the watching of the game to another level entirely with new technology. With at least 12 camera angles available the fan is now on the field and not just in the stands anymore. There are replays and zoom-ins and highlights. There is more information around a decision than ever before. It’s changed the game and we absolutely support that.
“But we need to also understand that while the tech has increased, the referee still only has two eyes and ears. He is still human. That’s not an excuse, but what’s hurting us is when people express an opinion without accountability.
“The referees are accountable. Their decisions are reviewed and if it’s wrong it’s corrected. But people with blanket opinions have no accountability. That’s where the respect must come in, because as referees we are definitely there to play our part in making the URC the best rugby product in the world.”
Henning has tremendous respect for the URC as a product and says his fellow match officials share this. “We’re doing this because we owe it to the product. The coaches are passionate about this competition, and so are the match officials.”
It’s exactly why, in his proposal to the URC, Henning went as far as to invoke the United States’ measure for presidential leadership and outlined his own first “100 days” in office plan. “We’re more than ready to play our part,” he said.
And it is in those words he uses of “play our part” that Henning highlights one critical element the ongoing debate around refereeing in rugby is missing – the desire of the referees themselves to enhance the rugby product, not detract from it.
“There will obviously be growing pains with such a unique tournament between hemispheres. But it’s so exciting, and as referees we need to play our part to contribute to this unbelievably exciting competition between six of the top 10 unions in world rugby. We embrace that. As match officials I can assure you we are motivated to make our contribution as best we can.
“We never say we’re going to be perfect. We are working very hard to contribute to a good product for 80 minutes on a Saturday. We’re accountable. We answer back to the coaches. We say we agree with them if they were right. And the coaches are playing their part as well. They send us clips on a weekly basis. We are all responsible for this great product. I can tell you that every single union in this competition is working extremely hard to make their match officials even better.”
Henning has also brought in what he refers to as “cross coaching” of match officials. “When Sam Grove-White is going to referee the Vodacom Bulls for the first time, he’ll call up Mark Lawrence or Jaco Peyper and Marius van der Westhuizen and ask for key pointers as to the Bulls’s playing style and how he should approach them. Jaco did the same when he refereed in Ireland.
“He phoned John Lacey and asked for similar pointers to look out for. All the referees are buying into this process to make the decisions more consistent, and to create understanding and respect for the culture they’re dealing with – the culture of the club and how to deliver a better performance to how the teams want to play.
“And I want to make something perfectly clear. There is not a referee in the world that will have a conscious bias towards a team. We can’t control perceptions out there, but performance kills perceptions and we know that. The referees will make mistakes, but we shouldn’t read bias into that. That’s dangerous and we need to be careful with that.”
There is no doubt that Henning has a very clear vision of where he wants to get to with the match officials, and he’s prepared to join them in working tirelessly to reach this objective.
“I’m not making drastic changes here. There are some very knowledgeable people in this competition – top players and coaches and referees. All we are doing is aligning it so it runs smoothly. Some days I’m up at 5am to give coaches answers before they go to the training field to explain it to their players. And sometimes I’ll work till 11pm. But we’re doing it so we can all develop a game we want, and that’s best for the tournament and all the teams. Not just a particular team. So yes, I’m very excited about where we’re going with this tournament. It will just bring us closer and closer to a greater alignment for a quality rugby product.”